The natural gas industry is ready for a net zero future – as long as it still includes pipelines

Every minute, a new customer is connected to the natural gas system, says Karen Harbert, president of the American Gas Association, or AGA, the primary trade association for gas utilities in the United States.

Today, it is a major problem for the climate. Leaks are common throughout the natural gas system, from wells, pipelines and appliances, and they release the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere. When natural gas is finally burned in a heater or stove, carbon dioxide is emitted. In total, residential and commercial gas use was responsible for about 10% of U.S. emissions in 2019. In colder regions of the country that rely primarily on natural gas heating, it accounts for a much larger share of emissions. .

But at a press conference Tuesday, Herbert told reporters the natural gas system can grow 24% over the next three decades while getting cleaner and ultimately not contributing to climate change at all. This is the main finding of the AGA’s new Net-Zero Emissions Opportunities for Gas Utilities report.

The report comes as many cities and states with climate goals are adopting policies and creating incentives to stem the tide of new natural gas users by encouraging people to install appliances that can run on clean electricity, like pumps. heat and induction cookers. Change threatens the bottom line of gas utilities, and the industry is pushing for solutions that use their existing infrastructure.

The AGA report outlines four potential pathways that gas utilities could take to eliminate their emissions by 2050. All four would require a radical transformation of the industry, with the amount of energy supplied by fossil natural gas increasing from 12 quadrillion British thermal units down today. to 1 quadrillion or less by mid-century.

American Gas Association Net-Zero Emissions Opportunities for Gas Utilities Report

All paths present a similar set of solutions, but vary in how much they depend on each. The AGA proposes that utilities reduce their energy demand through energy efficiency programs; repurpose the existing pipeline network to deliver alternative gases that have a lower (but not zero) carbon footprint, such as biogas or a mixture of natural gas and hydrogen; build new pipelines in selected areas that can transport pure hydrogen; and stepping up leak detection and pipe replacement programs to reduce methane emissions.

The AGA also considers that carbon capture plays a role in reducing emissions related to the use of natural gas in the industrial sector and in the production of hydrogen. The industry group’s four pathways rely on carbon capture and carbon offsets to eliminate the remaining 8-14% of current gas utility emissions.

Electrification may still play a minor role in AGA’s vision for the future. Two of the pathways involve a small portion of customers switching to electric appliances, although one assumes it will be hybrid systems which use gas heating as a backup when it is very hot. cold.

Richard Meyer, vice president of energy markets analytics and standards at AGA, told reporters that the mix of strategies each utility uses to decarbonize should depend on “highly localized factors” like the temperature, energy prices and housing stock.

American Gas Association Net-Zero Emissions Opportunities for Gas Utilities Report

Mike Henchen, director of the carbon-free buildings team at clean energy research and advocacy group RMI, applauded the trade association for releasing the report. “It’s great to see AGA clearly show that the use of fossil natural gas is to be virtually eliminated by 2050 in US gas distribution systems,” he said in an email. “Overall, this is a sign that the gas utility industry is working to take decarbonization more seriously.”

Henchen was also happy to see electrification included in the report, but said she left out electric solutions. Electrification “is a high-trust strategy to reduce emissions and is the policy direction for a growing number of cities and states,” he said.

The AGA does not consider the electrification of all buildings to be a high-trust strategy. The trade group’s report notes that widespread electrification can be hindered by local power grids that cannot meet the additional demand, and that there are practical and technological barriers to electrifying very large buildings and operating heat pumps in extremely cold weather. The report argues that solutions that continue to use the existing gas pipeline system could potentially minimize disruption to customers, reduce the cost of decarbonization, and reduce the uncertainty associated with electrification.

These benefits are, however, purely speculative, as the authors did not attempt to estimate the cost of any of the technological pathways or options. The report also acknowledges that there is great uncertainty about how much low-carbon gas might be available in the future, as well as what options will be offered to offset emissions. There is also no analysis of the potential pollution and public health implications of the solutions and pathways.

Henchen said other studies have predicted that renewable natural gas will remain much more expensive than natural gas in the future. He also expressed skepticism about the AGA’s projection that the industry can increase production of renewable natural gas up to 100 times current supply, in part by devoting new crops to biogas production, the same way corn is grown for ethanol today.

While the AGA study clarifies how the gas industry plans to reduce its climate footprint, it also highlights the need for more detailed analysis to weigh the potential costs, risks and benefits of different solutions.

“To achieve the most climate benefits as quickly as possible and at a reasonable cost, we will need regulatory oversight to weigh these strategies alongside those that go beyond what is in the report – such as the ‘widespread electrification,’ Henchen said.

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